Redefining and Reinforcing Psychological Safety

Do more to support your team by investing in physical and psychological safety.

Posted Jul 16, 2020

Amid the pandemic, the meaning of safe work environments has changed drastically. Pre-pandemic, safety was discussed but wasn’t always on the front burner. Overnight, everything changed.

Since early 2020, safety has rapidly become a critical issue across workplace environments around the world. From the retail floor to the corporate suite, everyone is rethinking what workplace safety means. For leaders, this work is especially important. Safety is now a factor in every decision.

What Is Safety?

We might intuitively recognize what it means to “feel safe,” but defining it for your team or entire organization is a much greater challenge.

By definition, safety refers to the condition of being protected from danger, risk, or injury. Feeling safe, however, is more complicated and means something different to every individual. To feel safe, one also needs to trust that the conditions to reduce danger, risk, or injury have been put into place and will continue to be upheld over time.

As an example, consider all the organizations currently investing time and money to meet government-mandated safety protocols (e.g., altering seating arrangements, elevator use, and so on). These measures are essential, but they are only a first step. To promote safety, organizations need to do more than rearrange seating or impose new rules. Employees need to trust that these measures will keep them safe and be continuously respected and reinforced by everyone on staff. This means that leaders and organizations need to approach safety on two levels: physical and psychological. After all, without psychological safety, physical safety measures will still fail.

The Impact of Psychological Safety

Amid all the workplace challenges currently facing us, one might wonder if promoting psychological safety is a priority. Recent and current research suggests that it should be.

2015 study carried out by a team of researchers at Google found that psychological safety (in the sense of, "Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?") seemed to be the most important factor supporting high-functioning teams at the company. In fact, the authors wrote that psychological safety was the foundation underlying all other factors that define high-functioning teams, including dependability, clarity, meaning, and impact.

On the flip side, when teams and organizations feel unsafe, the adverse effects can also be significant. One May 2020 nationwide study of Italian health care workers found that beyond concerns about physical safety (i.e., bringing the virus home to their families), only 20% and 25% felt psychologically safe.

Understanding psychological safety in its fullest capacity is also essential. The authors of one recent study caution, “a limited view of worker psychological safety (solely in terms of job security), without due consideration for the broader emotional distress created by the pandemic, could have the effect of severely restricting organizational resilience.” In a hospital setting, this could adversely impact patient safety and staff retention. In other types of organizations, productivity may be put at risk.

Building a Psychologically Safe Workplace Culture

This raises an obvious question: How do you promote psychological safety in your workplace? Beyond the sneeze guards, social distancing rules, and hand-sanitizing stations, how do you ensure everyone on your team feels truly safe so they can focus on the work that really matters?

Step 1: Build a Culture of Safety 

As you turn your attention to physical safety, also proactively build a culture of psychological safety. Simply put, don’t just invest in sneeze guards and masks. Also, invest in building trust and transparency. 

Step 2: Recognize that Everyone Defines and Experiences Safety Differently 

Leaders must also appreciate that safety means different things to different people. During the Pandemic, we’ve already seen that some workers feel safer returning to work than others. It’s important to respect these differences and not simply when talking about physical safety. In fact, psychological safety is even more likely to be experienced differently from person to person. Some of our colleagues feel psychologically unsafe on an ongoing basis due to racism and other forms of exclusion and harassment. This means that a workplace culture that feels safe, fun, and productive for some team members may feel profoundly unsafe for others. Recognizing that this is the case is an essential first step for any leader committed to building a psychologically safe culture for all. 

Step 3: Foster a Conversation

Since feeling safe depends on the individual and specific conditions, invite ongoing feedback. Ask and ask again in different ways. Create an avenue for your employees to offer anonymous feedback. Ensure the conversation on safety—both physical and psychological—is open, ongoing, and has a visible impact on policies, practices, and decision making.

References

Felice, C., Di Tanna, G. L., Zanus, G., & Grossi, U. (2020). Impact of COVID-19 Outbreak on Healthcare Workers in Italy: Results from a National E-Survey. Journal of community health, 45(4), 675–683. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10900-020-00845-5

Rangachari, P., & L Woods, J. (2020). Preserving Organizational Resilience, Patient Safety, and Staff Retention during COVID-19 Requires a Holistic Consideration of the Psychological Safety of Healthcare Workers. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(12), 4267. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17124267

Rozovsky, Julia. The five keys to a successful Google team. re:Work (November 17, 2015): https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/five-keys-to-a-successful-google-team/